Rebels, Germany laud Russian plan to withdraw from Syria
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Rebels, Germany laud Russian plan to withdraw from Syria

Berlin says pullout, which Moscow claims is designed to signal shift from fighting to diplomacy, will put pressure on Assad as peace talks get underway

A fighter belonging to Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) runs to take cover near the frontline on March 14, 2016 in the neighbourhood of Jobar, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP / AMER ALMOHIBANY)
A fighter belonging to Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) runs to take cover near the frontline on March 14, 2016 in the neighbourhood of Jobar, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP / AMER ALMOHIBANY)

Syria’s main opposition on Monday hailed Russian President Vladimir Putin announcement that his country would begin withdrawing its forces from Syria on Tuesday, but said it would wait and see what impact the order would have on the ground.

“We must verify the nature of this decision and its meaning,” Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee told reporters in Geneva.

“If there is a decision to withdraw the (Russian) forces, it is a positive decision, and we will see it on the ground (but) does this decision mean removing forces or just reducing the number of aircraft in Syria, (that) we will have to check,” he said.

Putin earlier Monday ordered the start of the withdrawal of Moscow’s forces from Syria in a shock move, as fresh peace talks began in Geneva.

“The task that was set before our defense ministry and armed forces has as a whole been completed and so I order the defense ministry to from tomorrow start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingents from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in televised comments.

A military helicopter is seen at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on February 16, 2016. (AFP / STRINGER)
A military helicopter is seen at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on February 16, 2016. (AFP / STRINGER)

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Monday that should the Russian military withdrawal from Syrian territory materializes, it would put pressure on Assad and force him to take the Geneva talks seriously, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, US officials, who spoke under condition of anonymity, told the news agency that the White House had not been briefed about the Russian pullout, and that Putin’s announcement had caught the US government by surprise.

They added that so far there was no indication on the ground of preparations for withdrawal from Syria.

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on Monday, said he had no comment on Putin’s announcement when contacted by The Associated Press.

But hopes for a breakthrough at the talks remained remote with both sides locked in a bitter dispute over the future of President Bashar Assad, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the brutal conflict.

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations said, Russia’s decision to begin withdrawing from Syria was designed to help Moscow intensify efforts to reach a political settlement.

“Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria,” Churkin told reporters ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria.

Churkin said Russian special forces were being pulled out and the remaining military personnel would mainly be engaged in making sure the cease-fire now underway is maintained.

He didn’t respond to questions on whether Russian airstrikes would end.

High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salem al-Meslet speaks during a press conference on the eve of the second round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, March 13, 2016. (AFP/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)
High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salem al-Meslet speaks during a press conference on the eve of the second round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, March 13, 2016. (AFP/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

The Kremlin announced that Putin had called Assad to inform Moscow’s long-standing ally of the shock move that appears to end the main part of its controversial bombing campaign that began in September.

“The leaders noted that the actions of the Russian airforce allowed to radically change the situation in the fight against terrorism, to disorganize the fighters’ infrastructure and inflict significant damage on them,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

“Taking that into account, the President of Russia stated that the main tasks set before the armed forces of Russia in Syria had been completed. It was agreed to carry out the withdrawal of the main part of Russia’s airforce contingent,” the statement said.

The two leaders, however, also agreed that Moscow would maintain an airforce facility in Syria to help monitor the progress of a ceasefire in the war-torn country.

“Assad noted the professionalism, courage and heroism of the officers of the Russian armed forces that took part in the military operations and expressed deep appreciation to Russia,” the Kremlin statement said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad listening to a question during an interview with AFP in the capital Damascus, February 11, 2016. (AFP/JOSEPH EID)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad listening to a question during an interview with AFP in the capital Damascus, February 11, 2016. (AFP/JOSEPH EID)

“The Syrian leader underlined his readiness for the quickest establishment of the political process in Syria,” the statement said.

Assad said the Russian military would draw down its air force contingent from Syria but won’t leave the country altogether, Syrian state TV reported.

Assad said the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces had secured “victories against terrorism and returned security to the country.”

Russia began its airstrikes in support of Assad’s forces in September, a move that helped shore up the Syrian regime’s crumbling forces and allow them to go on the offensive.

Russia sent over 50 warplanes to carry out thousands of strikes across the war-torn country arguing that it was targeting “terrorist” groups including Islamic State jihadists.

The intervention was slammed by the West and its regional allies, who insisted that Moscow was mainly bombing more moderate rebels fighting Assad.

A temporary ceasefire between Assad’s forces and opponents in the country introduced on February 27 has largely held, but it does not cover the IS and Nusra front groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 14, 2016. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 14, 2016. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP)

Putin said he hoped the withdrawal decision would provide a “good signal” for all the warring sides in the conflict.

“I hope this will significantly increase the level of trust of all the participants in the political process in Syria,” Putin said at the televised meeting that was also attended by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Moscow’s Hmeimim air base in Syria and its Tartus naval facility would remain functioning and that some military contingents would stay behind.

He did not however give any details on how many soldiers would stay in Syria and what the timeframe for withdrawal was.

The UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva are the latest effort to end violence that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.

Hopes for a breakthrough at the talks, however, appeared remote with the sides locked in a bitter dispute over Assad’s future.

As the Syrian delegations arrived in Geneva over the weekend, Damascus warned that any discussion about removing Assad would be a “red line”.

Top Western diplomats immediately condemned the comment from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as divisive and provocative.

After his first official meeting with the regime on Monday, UN envoy de Mistura told reporters that “strong statements (and) rhetoric” were part of every tough negotiation and that his initial discussions with government representative Bashar Jaafari were “useful.”

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